Federal Regulators Need More Control On Salmonella Fight: Pew Report
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
An ongoing salmonella outbreak that has been linked to a California chicken producer highlights the need for more action to be taken by federal regulators to step up food safety rules and regulations to protect American consumers.
Foster Farms, the sixth-largest chicken producer in the US, is behind a string of salmonella outbreaks that has so far sickened more than 500 people in 29 states since 2012. The latest outbreak, which was first detected in March 2013, has caused at least 416 sicknesses in 23 states, according to a report in USA Today.
A new Pew Charitable Trusts report has examined how these two recent outbreaks have made it clear that holes exist in the federal food safety program. Titled, “Weaknesses in FSIS’s Salmonella Regulation,” the report has made seven recommendations to improve the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) program in order to keep better control of the salmonella in poultry and to strengthen its response to outbreaks caused by the bacteria.
These Pew’s recommendations for FSIS include changing its approach to developing and implementing limits on salmonella contamination for chicken so they are updated regularly, are enforceable and linked to public health outcomes; consider establishing limits on salmonella contamination for chickens when they enter the slaughterhouse; conduct unannounced salmonella testing in chicken processing facilities; communicate outbreaks to consumers via public health alerts as early as possible; and close facilities under investigation for failing to produce safe food, as well as keeping them closed until proper control measures are in place. The report also calls for Congress to give FSIS the power to force processors to issue recalls.
“When more than 500 people get sick from two outbreaks associated with chicken that meets federal safety standards, it is clear that those standards are not effectively protecting public health,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety project. “The Food Safety and Inspection Service should go beyond what it is proposing in its recently released ‘Salmonella Action Plan’ and do more to target salmonella, which is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other bacterium or virus.”
According to the USDA/FSIS website, “The Salmonella Action Plan is the agency’s strategy to best address the threat of Salmonella in meat and poultry products.”
However, the FSIS’s proposed “strategy” may not be enough and the agency has only taken “baby steps” to fix the problem, noted Eskin. “They’re walking in the right direction perhaps but at way too slow a pace. We need a few giant steps.”
Seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg have been linked to the Foster Farms chicken outbreak, strains that have so far appeared especially virulent. So far, 39 percent of those who have fallen ill have been hospitalized, compared to the usual 20 percent with typical salmonella poisoning, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Furthermore, the CDC reports that about 42,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported annually in the US, but the actual number of infections may be exponentially higher. Most cases of salmonellosis are linked to live poultry. The outbreaks tied to Foster Farms may actually be much higher as well, with the CDC estimating as many as 15,000 sicknesses – it is likely that many illnesses go undiagnosed.
Only once the second outbreak came to light in March 2013, did the FSIS issue an alert. However, in neither the first nor second outbreak did the FSIS ask Foster Farms to issue a recall on contaminated chicken or to stop shipping potentially contaminated poultry to market.
No deaths had been reported in either outbreak, but the second outbreak is still ongoing, according to the latest CDC report, which updated the number of illnesses this week, adding 27 new illnesses since November.
According to a CNN report, Brian Ronholm, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, said that “FSIS acted as aggressively as possible under the authority they had during the Foster Farms outbreaks.” He also noted that the USDA/FSIS “‘appreciates’ Pew’s report since it ‘supports the efforts we already have under way’.”
Ronholm said that USDA/FSIS now has a proposal under review that would require all poultry slaughterhouses to prevent contamination by conducting regular microbial tests at two points. He said the agency also authorizes inspectors to suspend operations in facilities that cannot demonstrate they have controlled salmonella contamination.
Dan Englejohn, deputy assistant administrator of USDA’s FSIS, said that contamination is going to occur in these facilities despite what slaughterhouses do. However, while it cannot be controlled completely, he told USA Today that it can be minimized.
In the past, the agency has allowed contamination to occur unchecked as long as the processor made efforts to remove it somehow before processing, said Englejohn. But with the new Salmonella Action Plan, FSIS will be looking to force “the prevention of the contamination. And if there’s evidence that it’s not happening then we slow down or stop the processing line.”
Eskin is all for it, but wants concrete proof.
“There are too many words like ‘considering’ and ‘developing’ in the USDA’s plans,” she told USA Today.
The Pew report may be calling for more action from the USDA and its food safety arm, but another report has found some even more “worrisome” details pertaining to contamination in poultry products.
A recent Consumer Reports paper found high levels of bacteria in tests conducted on 316 chicken breasts, including 64 from brands that use no antibiotics in raising chickens and 24 from organic samples.
“Every one of the four major brands we tested contained worrisome amounts of bacteria, even the chicken breasts labeled ‘no antibiotics’ or ‘organic,’” Consumer Reports said in a statement.
CR found that enterococcus was the most common bacteria (79.8 percent) found in poultry. E. coli was next with 65.2 percent contamination, followed by Campylobacter, salmonella and staphylococcus aureus.
Thankfully, it is reports such as this one that allow poultry producers to better prepare their products and reduce food-borne pathogens, according to the National Chicken Council.
“Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every single day,” the council said in a statement, as cited by CNN, “and 99.9 percent of those servings are consumed safely.”
While salmonella wasn’t the biggest threat detected in the CR paper, the Pew report outlined in background information that salmonella does cause more than a million food-borne illnesses every year and health-related costs run as high as $11 billion annually.
“The contaminated product isn’t supposed to reach consumers — that’s the point,” Eskin said. “You see this is a very complicated bacteria. It’s a challenge, and we haven’t gotten it right yet.”
Ronholm had no information on when a timeframe would open for the Salmonella Action Plan to go into effect, but did say that consumers can do a lot now by being diligent in their food safety practices, including washing hands and cooking food to the proper temperatures.